Friday, January 8, 2016

What was on Saint Paul's prayer card?

The Apostle Paul
The Apostle Paul
Rembrandt van Rijn, 1657
National Gallery of Art
The other day, Lori shared a delightful blog post by Bronwyn Lea about prayer. Bronwyn noted that Saint Paul ...

“didn’t pray for in his letters: people with cancer, busy schedules, promotions at work, successful ventures, hard pressed finances, strained relationships...Not that those things don’t matter, or that we shouldn’t pray for them, or that God doesn’t care about the minutiae of our lives, but they weren’t on the apostles regular prayer card.”

She says she now ends each prayer with “God make it count.”

That got me thinking: What was on Paul's prayer card?

This week, the Daily Office lectionary brings us Paul's Letter to the Colossians, and it is right there in the first few verses. It's my new favorite letter from Paul. He prays that his listeners will “be filled with”...

• Knowledge of God's will and “all spiritual wisdom” (discernment)
• Lead worthy lives
• Bear fruit in good work
• Strength
• Endurance
• Patience
• Joyful thanks

I think that an amazing list. Notice that in none of this does Paul offer advice to God. His prayers are about discernment, living a good life, good works, being strong, patient and enduring all that comes our way. And he ends prayer hoping we will have thanks – joyful thanks.

Note that first on the list is discernment. I often struggle with this – how do I really know God's will that I can lead a worthy life and do every good work?  How do absorb spiritual wisdom? It takes prayer, study, conversation with others, and time. I take heart that Paul struggled with this too – it was highest on his list for his prayers. Make it count.

Here is Paul's prayer from Colossians 1:1-14:

“We have not ceased praying for you and asking that you may be filled with the knowledge of God’s will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, so that you may lead lives worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him, as you bear fruit in every good work and as you grow in the knowledge of God. May you be made strong with all the strength that comes from his glorious power, and may you be prepared to endure everything with patience, while joyfully giving thanks to the Father, who has enabled you to share in the inheritance of the saints in the light.”

Thursday, January 7, 2016

From time to time, I like to pass along a poem. My friend, Janine Schenone, the new rector of Good Samaritan Episcopal Church in San Diego (congratulations!!), reminded me of this one the other day ...

+ + +

by Mary Oliver

It doesn't have to be
the blue iris, it could be
weeds in a vacant lot, or a few
small stones; just
pay attention, then patch
a few words together and don't try
to make them elaborate, this isn't
a contest but the doorway
into thanks, and a silence in which
another voice may speak.

From Thirst: Poems
copyright  2006 © Mary Oliver

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Clouds and light: Epiphany 2016

The Sea of Galilee at dawn
Photo by James Richardson, copyright 2011
As I write this, it is still early and very dark outside here in Sonoma County. It is raining – El NiƱo is finally here (and we need the rain) but with it flash flood warnings.

Today is the Feast of the Epiphany, the end of the Twelve Days of Christmas, and as tradition holds, the day the wise men arrive at the crib of Jesus. This also begins a relatively short season on the Church calendar, the season of the Epiphany – the “season of light.”

But the sun will be hard to see today, and the light is hard to see in our very troubled and violent world.

Wars, refugees, mean-spirited partisan politics, armed right-wing insurrectionists in Oregon, and saber rattling from North Korea all top the news today on this Epiphany 2016.

The readings in the Daily Office today don’t really proclaim “light” but rather proclaim deeper truths transcending momentary clouds and storms.

Epiphany is speaking to me this year in a way that I had not noticed before. This ancient feast day is really not about wise men at all, but rather about an ancient truth: Jesus goes to the Cross not to pay off a bloodthirsty God, but to suffer as we suffer, die as we die, and then to show us a way beyond the Cross to hope and healing.

He goes to the depths of hell itself to rescue us from death and bring new life – Resurrection – into those corners of our lives and the world that need it most. In Epiphany, we get a mini-version of Holy Week and Easter, painted so vividly in the poetic language of the ancients:

From Isaiah 49:1-7:

“I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.” 

From Revelation 21:22-27: 

“And the city has no need of sun or moon on it, for the glory of God us its light, and its lamp is the Lamb…It’s gates will never be shut by day—and there will be no night there.” 

From Matthew 12:14-21: 

“He will not break a bruised reed or quench a smoldering wick until he brings justice to victory. And in his name the Gentiles will hope.” 

The Collect for Epiphany (Book of Common Prayer p. 214) 

O God, by the leading of a star you manifested your only Son to the people of the earth: Lead us, who know you now by faith, to your presence, where we may see your glory face to face; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.  

Emmaus Table, James Richardson

Monday, January 4, 2016

Stones as a memorial forever

"These stones shall be to the Israelites a memorial forever."
– Joshua 4:7

I have four small stones from the shore of the Sea of Galilee that I picked up on a pilgrimage a few years ago. I keep the stones – pebbles really – in a small olive wood bowl I bought in a curio shop in Jerusalem.

The bowl is on a table near the chair where I pray in the morning. I often hold one of the pebbles in my hand as as I pray. The stones were temporarily lost during our move back to the West, and I recently found them in a box labeled "Baskets."

The Book of Joshua 3:14-4:7, the Old Testament lesson in today's Daily Office, tells of the parting of the River Jordan as the people enter the Promised Land after their long journey through the wilderness.

In the story, the leaders of the twelve tribes are instructed to take a stone from the riverbed and carry it on their shoulders "as a memorial forever." They bring the stones to the places where they settle.

My four little stones contain memories. During our pilgrimage, it was my privilege to celebrate the Holy Eucharist at a shrine to Saint Peter on the shore of the Sea of Galilee. I put the stones on the altar, and the stones became the focus of my homily.

I talked about how each pebble is unique – one is small, another rough, another is white, and another is two-toned black-and-white. Indeed, all pebbles are unique. Not one pebble on this planet is exactly like another. So, too, are each of us made unique by our Creator.

I've often wondered what miracles these little pebbles have witnessed. Did Jesus walk on these pebbles? As I held a pebble in my hand this morning, I thought of the experiences of the holy many people had long before I was born. The pebble was also a reminder of miracles yet to come. This day is unique. No day was ever like this or will ever be like this again. My prayer is to make this day count.

Emmaus Table, James Richardson

Sunday, January 3, 2016

Not all stars are in the sky

Here is my sermon from today, based on the readings for the Epiphany especially Matthew 2:1-12:

The APc-16, my father's ship in World War II
 My father served in the U.S. Navy in World War II as the navigator on a small ship in the South Pacific. In those days, ships navigated by star and chart.

He used a sextant to pinpoint the position of stars against the horizon, and from that he could calculate the position of his ship on the sea.

The lives of his shipmates depended not only on the accuracy of his calculations, but also on the accuracy of his identification of the stars. He got very skilled at picking out stars – and could even identify stars through the breaks in the clouds.

When I was a small boy, my dad delighted in teaching me the names of the stars. I also learned from him that not all stars are in the sky.

Some stars shine deep within us.
This morning, in the Gospel of Matthew, we meet once again the magi – the “wise men” – as they follow a star to the crib of Jesus.
Let me point out a few details you might not have noticed in the story of the magi – or details that are missing: Nowhere in the biblical story does it say how many magi there were. Legend says three, and legend even gives them names: Melchoir, Casper and Balthazar.

But the Gospel of Matthew gives us no clue about how many magi there were – it could have been two or two hundred. Nor does the gospel give us their names.

Legend calls them kings – “We three kings of orient are.” But Matthew makes no such claim about their status or national origins.

And especially note this: No one other than the magi see the star. No one else.

There is nothing in the story to indicate that the star is brightly flying across the sky like the star depicted on Christmas cards. If it were, then King Herod and everyone else would have had no problem seeing it.

But only the magi see it. 

The star is not mentioned anywhere else in the Bible except in the Gospel of Matthew. There are no other historical accounts of this star except here.

I don’t tell you this to explode myths. Rather, maybe we should consider that the star wasn’t in the sky at all. Maybe the star was inside the magi, burning so brightly inside them that they just had to follow wherever it led. 

They followed this star by faith and faith alone. The magi did not know where they were going, or how the journey would come out.

But they went anyway.

This is the definition of faith – following a star wherever it leads, and acting without being certain of the final destination or outcome.This star brought the magi a very long distance from their homes. They would not be the first to follow a star, nor the last.

These wise men – the Magi – follow their star to the infant Jesus. They come to behold and honor the newborn king. They discover that this king is like no other king before or since. He will grow to become a king with no throne, no scepter, no armies, no political power. He will wash the feet of his followers, heal the sick, feed the hungry, and share meals with outcasts, tax collectors, saints and sinners, and all who come to his table.

He will teach, he will pray, he will get frustrated and angry at times, and he will ultimately go to the Cross to show us that there is more to life than death. He will define his kingship by being a servant to all. 

This servant king brings not revenge and hatred, but reconciliation and healing. He brings what is called in Hebrew, shalom. 

As we hear the biblical stories unfold for us Sunday after Sunday this year, we will hear once again about people who follow stars. They will have strengths and flaws, courage and cowardice, and sometimes a mix of both. 

We will hear of a few people who get it right, and a lot more people who don’t. In short, most will be people like us. 

We too are called to follow the star inside us. We too are asked to follow by faith. I’ve been with you now almost six months. I’d like to offer a few observations about the star we are following by faith. 

First, this is a resilient congregation, and yes, a faithful congregation; this has always been so for more than a century. This congregation has a deep well of faith that has brought it through every trial and challenge that has come our way.

Yet there is not always a shared understanding of how to follow this star.  Do we follow this star primarily through outreach to the community with ministries like Open Table and the Living Room? Or do we follow this star primarily through music and arts like with Numina?

Or do we follow this star with education and formation for children and adults? Or follow with social events and hospitality? Or pastoral care for the sick and aged? 

All of these are important, but how do they fit together? 

Let me suggest that all we do connects by following the star of Christ’s gospel of shalomIf we begin in this place of reconciliation and healing – shalom – then all else will follow. This is where you will see the star.

I’ve heard much in the last few months that we have difficulty with communication.

But communication is not just about the transmission of events in newsletters and emails. We actually do that quite well.

Rather, our challenge is to connect with each other, to hear each other, to truly communicate about those things that really matter. This is why we need more opportunities to honestly share our stories and our perspectives so that we might trust each other more deeply.

We’ve been doing this in a series of congregational meetings, and we will be doing more in the new year. Please use these opportunities fully, and feel free to create opportunities for smaller conversations on your own.

We don’t need a sextant or chart to find this star. Our star is right here in front of us. We will see this star in sharing our worship and sacraments – in our common prayer and Holy Eucharist – Sunday after Sunday, week after week.

This is why it is so crucial for us to be here every Sunday, to worship fully together, to see this common star together. Jesus teaches us one thing counts above all else – that we should love God and love each other as God loves us. The first and great commandment is to love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul and strength.

The second great commandment is like unto it: to love our neighbor – each other – as we love ourselves, and not just when it is easy, but especially when it is hard. 

It comes to us to bring God’s shalom alive for each other and alive for everyone who walks through these doors.

So let us go forth once again, as the Letter to the Ephesians proclaims, “in boldness and confidence through faith in him,” and let us follow this star wherever it may lead. Shalom, peace. AMEN

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Holy Innocents: We can do something

“Blessed are all 
who take refuge in him.
Psalm 2:11b

The Christian calendar today holds one of grimmest of markers for the year: The Feast of the Holy Innocents. The day was transferred to today because of the clogging of the Christian calendar with other feast days that take a backseat to Christmas.

Marla Ruzicka, right, with a family in Iraq
shortly before she was killed
This may seem like a very odd day for a feast. It is, after all, the day we commemorate the slaughter of innocent children at the hands of  King Herod, as told in the Gospel of Matthew.

Herod murdered all of the first born boys in Bethlehem in an attempt to kill Jesus, the one who the Magi had told him would grow up to be a king. Jesus and his family escaped, but the carnage and anguish in Bethlehem was great.


What to make of the Holy Innocents? Should we turn away from the awfulness of this story?


What comes to mind is that the world is full of Holy Innocents – children who are killed or maimed in the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, Sudan, Libya, Syria. Children die as pawns of the powerful. Children die in Gaza and the West Bank, and children die in Bethlehem. And children die from gunfire in their own classrooms in the United States. We don’t need a King Herod to feel shame for the deaths of millions of innocent children in our world.

As I write this, millions of Syrian refugees are fleeing from ISIS, and millions of them are children. Rather than giving them safe refuge, we are letting only a trickle into our country. Instead of showing them our compassion, they have become sound-bites in our presidential politics.

A friend of mine says we should meet them at the airport with balloons and signs saying welcome. It would drive ISIS nuts.

There is something more we can do.

For several years I have been supporting the work of CIVIC – The Campaign for Innocent Victims in Conflict, an organization that documents the plight and advocates for refugees and victims caught in the cross-fire of the world’s conflicts. Its purpose:
“Campaign for Innocent Victims in Conflict works on behalf of war victims by advocating that warring parties recognize and help the civilians they harm. CIVIC supports the principle that it is never acceptable for a warring party to ignore civilian suffering.”
CIVIC was founded by a very brave young woman, Marla Ruzicka, from Lakeport, California, who in the months after 9/11 went to the frontlines herself to document what she saw, and then bring that information to the doorstep of decision-makers in Washington.

Marla was killed by a roadside bomb in Iraq in 2005. She was only 24.

It was my privilege to say prayers for her in the California Senate after she died, and I can tell you some very hardened politicians shed tears that day.

CIVIC has not only continued her work, but expanded it, going to Libya, Somalia, Iraq and Afghanistan, Lebanon and Israel. CIVIC works on a shoestring budget but it has had a huge impact by getting Congress to allocate funds to compensate war victims in Iraq and Afghanistan, and bringing the stories of real people caught in warfare to the media.

CIVIC has gone everywhere it can go, working with officials from the United Nations, and with governments in Israel and Lebanon, Russia and Georgia, and everywhere there is warfare. To read a summary of CIVIC’s accomplishments, click HERE.

I know that all of us are inundated this time of year with appeals for funds. But what better way to remember the Holy Innocents than by giving to CIVIC? I will be giving today as my devotion to this Holy day. Please join me. You can make a donation to CIVIC by clicking HERE.

Saturday, December 26, 2015

The Greatest Christmas Story ever told: Get the kid his peaches

Christmas blessings and greetings!

I have not posted much here during the chaos of our getting resettled in Northern California and starting a new position. I have not had the mental bandwidth for it. But it seems to me this Christmas season is a good time to start once again.

On my old blog, Fiat Lux, I posted once a year the Greatest Christmas Story Ever Told, at least I think it is. Here it is again, by the great Al Martinez of the Los Angeles Times, and many years before that, the Oakland Tribune. We lost Al in January on this year.

A Christmas Story
By Al Martinez

IT happened one Christmas Eve a long time ago in a place called Oakland on a newspaper called the Tribune with a city editor named Alfred P. Reck.

I was working swing shift on general assignment, writing the story of a boy who was dying of leukemia and whose greatest wish was for fresh peaches.

It was a story which, in the tradition of 1950s journalism, would be milked for every sob we could squeeze from it, because everyone loved a good cry on Christmas.

We knew how to play a tear-jerker in those days, and I was full of the kinds of passions that could make a sailor weep.

I remember it was about 11 o'clock at night and pouring rain outside when I began putting the piece together for the next day's editions.

Deadline was an hour away, but an hour is a lifetime when you're young and fast and never get tired.

Then the telephone rang.

It was Al Reck calling, as he always did at night, and he'd had a few under his belt.

Reck was a drinking man. With diabetes and epilepsy, hard liquor was about the last thing he ought to be messing with, but you didn't tell Al what he ought to or ought not to do.

He was essentially a gentle man who rarely raised his voice, but you knew he was the city editor, and in those days the city editor was the law and the word in the newsroom.

But there was more than fear and tradition at work for Al.

We respected him immensely, not only for his abilities as a newsman, but for his humanity. Al was sensitive both to our needs and the needs of those whose names and faces appeared in the pages of the Oakland Tribune.

"What's up?" he asked me that Christmas Eve in a voice as soft and slurred as a summer breeze.

He already knew what was up because, during 25 years on the city desk, Reck somehow always knew what was up, but he wanted to hear it from the man handling the story.

I told him about the kid dying of leukemia and about the peaches and about how there simply were no fresh peaches, but it still made a good piece. We had art and a hole waiting on page one.

Al listened for a moment and then said, "How long's he got?"

"Not long," I said. "His doctor says maybe a day or two."

There was a long silence and then Al said, "Get the kid his peaches."

"I've called all over," I said. "None of the produce places in the Bay Area have fresh peaches. They're just plain out of season. It's winter."

"Not everywhere. Call Australia."

"Al," I began to argue, "it's after 11 and I have no idea . . .”

"Call Australia," he said, and then hung up.

If Al said call Australia, I would call Australia.

I don't quite remember whom I telephoned, newspapers maybe and agricultural associations, but I ended up finding fresh peaches and an airline that would fly them to the Bay Area before the end of Christmas Day.

There was only one problem. Customs wouldn't clear them. They were an agricultural product and would be hung up at San Francisco International at least for a day, and possibly forever.

Reck called again. He listened to the problem and told me to telephone the secretary of agriculture and have him clear the peaches when they arrived.

"It's close to midnight," I argued. "His office is closed."

"Take this number down," Reck said. "It's his home. Tell him I told you to call."

It was axiomatic among the admirers of Al Reck that he knew everyone and everyone knew him, from cops on the street to government leaders in their Georgetown estates. No one knew how Al knew them or why, but he did.

I made the call. The secretary said he'd have the peaches cleared when they arrived and give Al Reck his best.

"All right," Reck said on his third and final call to me, "now arrange for one of our photographers to meet the plane and take the peaches over to the boy's house."

He had been drinking steadily throughout the evening and the slurring had become almost impossible to understand.

By then it was a few minutes past midnight, and just a heartbeat and a half to the final deadline.

"Al," I said, "if I don't start writing this now I'll never get the story in the paper."

I won't forget this moment.

"I didn't say get the story," Reck replied gently. "I said get the kid his peaches."

If there is a flash point in our lives to which we can refer later, moments that shape our attitudes and affect our futures, that was mine.

Alfred Pierce Reck had defined for me the importance of what we do, lifting it beyond newsprint and deadline to a level of humanity that transcends job. He understood not only what we did but what we were supposed to do.

I didn't say get the story. I said get the kid his peaches.

The boy got his peaches and the story made the home edition, and I received a lesson in journalism more important than any I've learned since.

I wanted you to know that this Christmas season.

Al Martinez is a former reporter and columnist for The Oakland Tribune, from 1955 to 1971, The Richmond (Calif.) Independent and Los Angeles Times to now. Born in Oakland, he also has written several novels, for television and the movies. This article first appeared in the Los Angeles Times on Dec. 25, 1986.